Job Hunting Tips

Is honesty the best policy for job interviews?

It’s not always clear if complete honesty is a good thing for an interview. This post discusses some benefits of being honest at interviews and how best to convey this to your interviewer.

Searching for jobs is a stressful experience. Especially at the end of your PhD when the long-term future becomes slightly less clear, the unknown factor can be overwhelming. This can lead to additional anxiety and stress in the final months of your PhD. Alternatively, it can lead to a sense of apathy towards career planning, whereby we sort of procrastinate on what to do after, wait for the PhD to be dead and buried before thinking about what to do next, let alone start our search. Once the job search does begin, interviews will start to eventually trickle in.

Irrespective of whether you’re interviewing for an academic position, a post-doc or a role that’s outside of the educational sphere, interviews can be stressful experiences. Depending on your emotional state, either you’re really excited about the job you’re interviewing for, or you’re starting to feel the financial pressures from not having a source of income, there can sometimes be a temptation to be dishonest within an interview. In a previous post we’ve discussed how best to approach an interview for non-academic roles within industry, but here we’re going to focus on one thing about the interview process – is honesty really the best approach?

In short, honesty is always your best approach. This is for several reasons which we’ll dive into shortly. This doesn’t necessarily mean say everything on your mind, but it’s about how you convey your thoughts and answer questions. Certainly, everyone exaggerates their strengths within an interview, and this isn’t a bad thing – if anything it’s encouraged, and you should do the same. Presenting facts in a way that can be perceived more favourably is the art of interviews, but this doesn’t include fabricating facts or withholding information.

If we take a step back for a second and put the interview to one side, finding a job is important and essential to achieving long-term stability and embarking on a career. To be blunt, you need to earn money to live. It doesn’t occur in a vacuum. This is also partly why it’s tempting to be dishonest or lie within an interview – if we fudge some bits of information, we may be more successful at receiving a job offer. However, if you are dishonest or lie within an interview you may find yourself in a strange place. Essentially, being dishonest may make you more successful in the short term, but over the long-haul this is likely to backfire.

The main reason for being honest at an interview is so that when you are offered a job, you’re offered it for the right reasons. If say, you’re embarrassed about certain skill gaps in your CV, you’re worried you don’t have industry knowledge, or you’re concerned your ‘hobbies and interests’ might be a bit unusual for your employers’ taste, the interview is the perfect opportunity to find out. If you’re going to be judged for who you are and what your experiences are, it’s way better to find that out early. If the interviewer is going judge you, look down on you, or perceive you in a negative light, would you even want to work for them anyway? Being dishonest about who you are, or your qualities prevents this golden opportunity to gain feedback about the company you’ve applied for. If you’re hired on a false-pretence due to your lack of authenticity you’re likely to be unhappy in the long run. Sure, you may get the job, but eventually people will find out who you are, what your background is, or any skill gaps you have. This could lead to judgement, lack of support, reduce opportunities, and more.

By being dishonest, you run the risk of being hired for a job that makes you miserable. On the other hand, if you’re dishonest at the interview and you’re successful, you may then have to be dishonest for the rest of your employment to keep the façade going – which again is exhausting and will most certainly have a negative impact on your well-being. In essence, being honest at an interview enables you to filter out and get a feel for how your potential future employer will treat you. Remember, an interview is also an opportunity for you to interview them, to get a sense of what their values are, what do they care about, and ultimately how they’ll treat you on a daily basis. We spend most of our waking time at work, you want those waking hours to be enjoyable, not burden your happiness.

In short, being honest will lead you to places that are good for you.

Given that we’ve established honesty is the best policy, there is one thing to keep in mind. This mainly revolves around those difficult questions you may get at an interview. Certainly, you should communicate your authentic self, but in a way that remains professional. For instance, if you’ve identified that having a healthy work-life balance is a core life value of yours and you get asked about working overtime or weekends, there’s an art on how to be honest.

Firstly, don’t say you’re fine with working overtime and weekends when you’re not (remember honesty is best). This will prevent you from being hired for a job where this is expected and avoid you from signing up to something that makes you unhappy. Secondly, don’t say ‘I refuse to work overtime or on the weekends because I have a life’ – although this may be true, it doesn’t tick that ‘professional’ box. A good way to respond might be to say, ‘A traditional work schedule works best for me right now. During my PhD I’ve always done well to manage my time effectively. I’m always committed to getting to job done and do well to prioritise my key tasks’. Here you’re not being dishonest, but you’re also able to crowbar in some of your transferable skills around time management and commitment.

For anyone who’s prepped well for an interview, you’ll know that when you’re asked about your weaknesses or if you don’t know the answer to something, you should always aim to spin it with a positive ending. In another scenario, you may get asked about your lack of ‘industry’ experience if you’re applying for roles outside of academia. Again, don’t be dishonest and say you have got experience when you haven’t, and don’t start your reply by validating this point – e.g. “Although I don’t have experience….”, or “Despite my limited experience…”. Instead, lean into your answer with honesty, positivity, and professionalism. A reply along the lines of “I’m really excited to apply the skills demonstrated from my PhD to a new opportunity” is a great way to reduce the interviewers concerns but also Segway into your transferable skills – which ultimately will be your key focus at an interview.

To summarise, always be honest. This provides you with your own filter and method to ensure you end up in a career and work environment that is positive. Secondly, be mindful of how you express your honesty. A combination of honesty and professionalism is what you want to aim for. Be authentic, but round off your responses in a way that is positive and respectful.

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